Perusing the internet to refresh my recollection of Amelia Earhart’s life and accomplishments (I was quite an aviation buff as a child), I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a single scene in Fox Searchlight’s film, Amelia, that doesn’t feel as though it’s reciting the Wikipedia entry paragraph by paragraph.
Concomitantly, her accomplishments as a pilot—the reason to watch a biography of Ms. Earhart—often take a backseat to less interesting personal details in this muddled film. That isn’t to say she led a boring life. Consider her marriage with publisher George “G.P.” Putnam (Richard Gere), who met her while scouting an aviatrix for a trans-Atlantic flight, or her relationship with aeronautics administrator Gene Vidal (Ewan MacGregor) and his son, Gore (William Cuddy). There’s also a brief examination of her controversial endorsement of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Yet, again, it feels as though director Mira Nair, whose previous films revolved largely around subjects closer to her Indian heritage, is checking off a laundry list of events rather than building a lush portrait of someone’s life.
At its best, however, there are humorous and serious moments that work. In 1928, Putnam selected Earhart as the first female to pilot the Fokker F.VIIb/3m across the Atlantic Ocean under the sponsorship of Amy Phipps Guest. Guest, a pilot who deemed the task too perilous for her own skills, wanted to follow-up the successful public relations image of Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh. Aiming for Ireland, they land in England. Earhart asks a police officer if the Irish always greet foreigners in song. “I wouldn’t know, ma’am,” he replies. “This is Wales.”
The film appears to err on some details, e.g. inferring gender rather than inexperience with IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) was responsible for relegating her a passenger. However, in a recurring theme of alcoholic pilots. Ms. Swank delivers her best line when reprimanding Slim Gordon for his drinking problem. She describes the one love of Earhart’s life—her father—abruptly reversing tone to reveal that he was ruined by alcoholism. Earhart would later be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as the first woman to complete a solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1932.
Editors Allyson Johnson and Lee Percy compounded the film’s flaws with rather odd choices. The split-personality film flits between conventional narrative and abstract, with jarring visual transitions that make no sense—cutting instantly from close ups of characters to wide shots of landscape or oceans. All it would take is a simple zoom out to a panoramic shot and a cross-dissolve to ease into Earhart’s philosophical asides.
Ms. Swank’s lines seem unnatural, as if constructed purely from the deliberated prose of Earhart’s diary entries and public appearances on newsreels without any extrapolation via creative license. Watching Ms. Swank struggle to emote through carefully-patterned enunciation is an exercise in patience. The screenplay, written by Ron Bass (author of the ridiculousEntrapment and the ponderous Dangerous Minds), is based on the novels East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary Lovell.
The film will probably appeal to the broader audience, who may take interest in the character history and some of the more sensational plot developments. As well-documented as Earhart’s demise is, the filmmakers still build up an unsettling, suspenseful end. Reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ equally-speculative conclusion to United 93, the tension snowballs in the final moments aboard Earhart’s Lockheed L-10 Electra, and in the communications room of the USS Itasca, off the coast of Howland Island—their final refuel stop in what would have been the first circumnavigation by airplane.
The Damned United • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 • Running Time: 111 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking. • Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures